Battle of Antietam

Battle of Antietam

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The Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, occurred on September 17, 1862, at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. It pitted Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia against Union General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and was the culmination of Lee’s attempt to invade the north. The battle’s outcome would be vital to shaping America’s future, and it remains the deadliest one-day battle in all of American military history.

The Significance of the Battle of Antietam

There was a lot at stake for the Battle of Antietam. By mid-summer 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had the Emancipation Proclamation—a document declaring freedom for all slaves in the so-called rebellious states—ready to go.

But after several unexpected and demoralizing Union losses, including Major General John Pope’s sound defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, it became clear the Confederacy wasn’t going to be easy to crush. Lincoln’s cabinet feared releasing the Emancipation Proclamation at that time would seem desperate and be difficult to enforce, so Lincoln decided to wait until another decisive Union victory.

To further complicate matters, Republicans faced midterm elections in November of 1862, and their victory wasn’t in the bag. Frustrated with Lincoln’s policies and the course of the war, Democrats launched an anti-war campaign, hoping to take over the U.S. House of Representatives.

General Robert E. Lee also recognized dissent among Lincoln’s ranks and hoped a battle victory on Union land might topple Lincoln’s congressional support and help secure the Confederacy once and for all.

In Europe, France and Great Britain anxiously watched America’s War Between the States. They’d remained on the sidelines so far, but as they endured cotton shortages and the south seemed to gain the upper hand, they considered legitimizing the Confederacy, a move with potentially drastic implications.

Setting the Stage for Battle

After Lee thwarted the plan of General George B. McClellan to lay siege to Richmond—the capital of the Confederate States of America—in the Peninsula Campaign in the spring and summer of 1862, McClellan retreated. Hoping to take advantage of the Union’s low morale and seeming ineptitude, Lee chose to push his army north across the Potomac and into Maryland where they soon occupied the town of Frederick.

On September 9, Lee issued Special Order 191 defining his “Maryland Campaign.” His plan to enter northern territory divided his army, sending each unit to march on a specific town: Boonsboro and Hagerstown in Maryland, and Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg in West Virginia.

Special Order 191

After the Confederates abandoned their campsite around Frederick, McClellan’s army moved in. What happened next was pivotal: On September 13, two Union soldiers, Private Barton W. Mitchell and Sergeant John M. Bloss, discovered a copy of Special Order 191 with detailed Confederate troop movements, allegedly wrapped around three cigars.

Upon learning of the valuable find, an ecstatic McClellan reportedly exclaimed, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.” He immediately moved his army in hopes of foiling Lee’s battle plans.

And when Lee heard a copy of Special Order 191 was missing, he knew his scattered army was vulnerable and rushed to reunite its units.

On September 14, at the base of South Mountain near Sharpsburg, Confederate Generals D.H. Hill’s and James Longstreet’s units encountered Union resistance and sustained heavy casualties. Lee planned to retreat to Virginia, but changed his mind after hearing Confederate General Thomas Jonathan Jackson—better known as Stonewall Jackson—had captured Harper’s Ferry.

Instead, Lee ordered his army to regroup at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg.

Battle of Antietam Begins

The Battle of Antietam began at dawn on September 17 as the fog lifted. Longstreet’s and Hill’s units formed the Confederate right and center flanks to the west of Antietam Creek, while Jackson’s and Brigadier General John G. Walker’s units formed the Confederate left flank.

All of Lee’s troops were worn-out and hungry, and many were sick. They watched and waited as McClellan’s army assembled along the creek’s east side. Union forces outnumbered Confederates by two to one, although McClellan thought Lee’s forces were much larger.

Troops from both sides faced-off across a 30-acre cornfield owned by David Miller. Union troops fired first at the Confederate’s left flank and the carnage began. Confederate troops ferociously fought off offensive after offensive to prevent being overrun, turning the cornfield into a massive killing field. Just eight hours in, there were over 15,000 casualties.

Bloody Lane

Near the center of the battlefield, another site of slaughter was a farm lane known as the “Sunken Road,” where Hill’s division of approximately 2,600 men had piled fence rails along the road’s embankment to fortify their position against Union Major General William H. French’s 5,500 approaching troops.

When French’s troops arrived, fighting ensued at close range. Three hours later, Union troops had pushed the Confederates back and over 5,000 men were either dead or injured. The fighting was so gory Sunken Road earned a new name: Bloody Lane.

For more than three hours, fewer than 500 Confederate soldiers held Lower Bridge against multiple assaults by Union General Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps. After Burnside’s troops finally took the bridge and had the Confederate right flank in sight, Confederate reinforcements arrived and pushed them back.

Battle of Antietam Ends

As night fell, thousands of bodies littered the sprawling Antietam battlefield and both sides regrouped and claimed their dead and wounded. Just twelve hours of intense and often close-range fighting with muskets and cannons had resulted in around 23,000 casualties, including an estimated 3,650 dead.

The next day, as Lee began the painstaking job of moving his ravaged troops back to Virginia, McClellan, surprisingly, did nothing. Despite having the advantage, he allowed Lee to retreat without resistance. From his point of view, he’d accomplished his mission of forcing Lee’s troops from Maryland and preventing a Confederate win on Union soil.

President Lincoln, however, wasn’t pleased. He thought McClellan missed a great opportunity to kick the Army of Northern Virginia while they were down and potentially end the war. After the war-weary general repeatedly refused Lincoln’s orders to pursue Lee’s retreating troops, Lincoln removed McClellan from command on November 5, 1862.

Union Claims Victory

Military historians consider the Battle of Antietam a stalemate. Even so, the Union claimed victory. And keeping Confederates in their southern box enabled President Lincoln to finally release his Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.

Ironically, Lincoln’s proclamation didn’t free slaves in Maryland—one of a handful of slave states that had remained in the Union—since it only applied to slaves in rebel states. Still, it endorsed the idea that the war wasn’t just about states’ rights but also stopping slavery.

The Union’s claim of victory at Antietam and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation are thought to be why Republicans held the House in the 1862 mid-term elections. They also ended any hope of France and Great Britain acknowledging the Confederacy and coming to their aid. This further isolated the Confederacy and made it harder for them to re-supply their troops and citizens.

There has never been a bloodier day in American military history than September 17, 1862. Not only did the Battle of Antietam change the course of the Civil War, it also brought to light the horror of war in a way never seen before, thanks to photographer Alexander Gardner’s dramatic battlefield photographs.

Perhaps the reality of the battle was best described by Union soldier Charles Goddard in a letter to his mother: “If the horrors of war cannot be seen on this battlefield, they can’t be seen any where.”

Lost Order, Lost Cause. Central Intelligence Agency.
The Battle of Antietam: A Turning Point in the Civil War. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
The Battle of Antietam. National Park Service.
The Maryland Campaign of 1862. Civil War Trust.
The Peninsula Campaign. Encyclopedia Virginia.
The Significance of the Battle of Antietam. Antietam on the Web.
Special Orders No. 191. National Park Service.
Why did Lee Enter Maryland? Antietam on the Web.

Antietam National Cemetery

Antietam National Cemetery is one of the 130 cemeteries of the National Cemetery System, a system that began during the Civil War. There are 4,776 Union remains (1,836 or 38% are unknown) buried here from the Battle of Antietam, South Mountain, Monocacy, and other action in Maryland. All of the unknowns are marked with small square stones. These stones contain the grave number, and if you look closely on a few stones, a small second number represents how many unknowns are buried in that grave. There are also a few of the larger, traditional stones that mark unknown graves.

In addition, more than 200 non-Civil War dead are also buried here. Veterans and their wives from the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea were buried here until the cemetery closed in 1953. Recently an exception to the closure was made for the burial of Keedysville resident Patrick Howard Roy, United States Navy. Fireman Roy was killed during the attack on the USS Cole and was buried in the Cemetery on October 29, 2000.

If you walk to the back of the cemetery you will notice a few separate graves. Ironically, on the battlefield that led directly to Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, African-American graves from WWI were segregated to this out-of-the-way corner.

There is a move these days to revisit our monuments and the names we choose to publicly honor. This movement is good and just. It is a sign of our mature democracy that we can choose to stop honoring things that do not reflect our American ideals and celebrate those that do. In this process, however, we must guard against the lazy choice of merely casting off the past, of portraying as evil or immoral anything that is historical.

Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Defense to create a commission to review the names of military installations and vessels after Confederate figures or victories. It’s called the Commission on the Naming of Items of the Department of Defense that Commemorate the Confederate States of America or Any Person Who Served Voluntarily with the Confederate States of America. The commission will brief the secretary of defense and Congress on its work by October 2021 and present a final report by October 1, 2022.

Incredibly, the name of a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, the Antietam, may be included in the commission’s “broad review” of names, according to the retired admiral heading the commission. To include “Antietam” in a list of names that supposedly honor the Confederacy is to completely misunderstand history.

It is apparently a reflexive impetus to reject anything associated with the Civil War, rather than with the Confederacy. This is a grave mistake, as even the following brief description shows.

Although the Mason-Dixon Line is often called the upper boundary of the South, it is really the mighty Potomac and her tributaries that divide North and South. Antietam Creek in Washington County, Maryland, is one such tributary.

Antietam is the Union name for a battle fought on September 17, 1862, across that creek. Antietam is an Algonquian word, and it was the name of the creek long before Americans came there to kill one another in the autumn of 1862.

The Battle of Antietam is one of the few Civil War battles fought in the North. Among other things, Gen. Robert E. Lee thought the Marylanders of the agriculturally rich counties of western Maryland would rally to the Southern cause with men and supplies if he took his army into Northern territory. He was badly mistaken.

The small, sturdy farms and towns of mountainous Western Maryland were the domains of the scrappy direct descendants of the Revolutionary generation, and largely immigrants—Germans, Dutch, Scots, Irish—who, then, as now, shared far more in common with their Appalachian cousins in staunchly Union western Pennsylvania and the soon-to-be-formed West Virginia than they did with the residents of low-lying Baltimore, Alexandria, and Richmond.

They turned a cold shoulder to Lee’s army and stayed in their homes as it marched through their towns singing “Maryland, My Maryland.” Instead, they cheered the Union’s Army of the Potomac as it arrived to stop Lee’s advance.

In local folklore, a woman in Frederick, Maryland stood in the doorway of her home with her small daughter beside her and defiantly waved the Union flag at the Confederate Army marching by toward Hagerstown, the seat of Washington County (named for the father of the Nation). A passing Confederate officer saluted her, although he demurred: “To you, madam not your flag.”

This incident was later embellished into an epic poem once taught to Maryland schoolchildren about Barbara Fritchie, a 90-year-old denizen of Frederick who defiantly waves a Revolutionary War-era American flag at the marching Confederates from her bedroom and shames them. The poem’s famous line resounds: “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.”

In real life, the Battle of Antietam was bloody, the carnage considerable. They fought for a full day, face to face across a farmer’s cornfield, around a German Baptist church, and for control of a bridge spanning the Antietam. Matthew Brady’s famous photos show them lying side by side locked in death together where they fell.

More Americans died that day than on any single day in our entire history: 7,650 men total, more than 4,000 of them Union soldiers, a full 25 percent of the Union Army’s fighting strength that day. More than 12,000 more Union soldiers were wounded, and 10,000 for the Confederates.

But the Union army held Lee’s was forced to retreat the following day. Thus, “Burnside Bridge,” “The Cornfield,” “Dunker Church,” and most famously, the sunken road forever-after known as “Bloody Lane,” passed into the province of history. The Antietam Battlefield was one of the first Civil War battlefields dedicated as a national site by the United States, in 1890.

Is now the name of this sanctified plot of land, a symbol of our hard-won union and its “new birth of freedom” for all, to be erased as a blight on the American nation and its fighting forces? No! For shame!

Some would argue Antietam is not a fit name for an American fighting ship because the battle was not a Union “victory.” Nonsense. Although the battle itself was a tactical stalemate, it was a resounding strategic and psychological victory for the North.

All of Lee’s strategic aims were defeated. He gathered neither men nor supplies he suffered staggering losses instead. He failed to achieve a decisive victory in Northern territory that might have garnered international support for the South. His army was forced to retreat back across the Potomac. If defeating all your enemy’s objectives and sweeping him from your territory is not a “victory,” then the word has lost all meaning.

More importantly, the Battle of Antietam was a galvanizing event and a turning point for the war and the nation. The strategic and psychological power of the victory enabled President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He did so five days later.

The unprecedented photographs of the aftermath of the battle taken by Brady seared into the nation’s consciousness the immense human sacrifice her people were offering on the altars of union and universal freedom. Make no mistake, these Union soldiers died “to make men free,” as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” puts it, in addition to holding the Union together.

For it wasn’t in just high-falutin’ hymns that the sentiment of emancipation for black Americans was sounded as a rallying cry for Northerners and for which the men of the Union army fought. The most popular ballad of the day in the North was “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” whose third verse rings out:

We will welcome to our numbers the loyal, true and brave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And although he may be poor, he shall never be a slave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The people of the Union in the 1860s knew well what Antietam stood for. They had poured out a tremendous measure of sacrifice onto that battlefield. It seems we, in 2021, have forgotten. But we must not. Keeping this name is one way to always remember.

33e. Bloody Antietam

This photo was taken on the Antietam battlefield in October 1862. A month later, on November 7, 1862 , Lincoln sacked General McClellan and replaced him with General Burnside.
McClellan is 4th to the left of President Lincoln.
Click the picture to enlarge. On the far right leaning against a tent is another famous general: George Armstrong Custer

The South was on the move.

In August 1862, a Confederate Army invaded Kentucky from Tennessee. They seized Frankfort and seated a Confederate governor. During that same month, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had defeated the Union Army again at the Second Battle of Bull Run .

Lee and Jefferson Davis believed that one more successful campaign might bring British and French recognition of the Confederacy. Foreign powers are reluctant to enter a conflict on the losing side. Although Britain and France both saw advantages of a split United States, neither country was willing to support the Confederacy without being convinced the South could win. Lee and Davis were desperately seeking that decisive victory.

Lee wanted to attack the North on its own territory. His target was the federal rail center at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but the Union General George McClellan was pursuing him. Lee decided to stop and confront the Union Army at Sharpsburg , Maryland. In front of the town ran a little creek called Antietam.

On September 15, Lee deployed his 30,000 soldiers on some four miles of rising ground behind Antietam Creek . He utilized the cover of rock outcroppings, rolling farmland, stone walls, fields of standing corn, and a sunken road in the center of his line.

Two days earlier, a Union corporal had found a copy of Lee's special orders wrapped around three cigars. But McClellan refused to act because he thought Lee's troops outnumbered his own. When McClellan started deploying his troops on September 16, he had 60,000 active soldiers and 15,000 in reserve. Had he thrust his complete force against the Confederates on September 15 or 16, he might have smashed Lee's army.

This map shows troop movements during the Battle of Antietam. Confederate troops are shown in red, Union troops in blue. (Click to enlarge)

The battle began early on the morning of September 17 when Union troops under the command of General Joseph Hooker attacked the forces of Stonewall Jackson across a cornfield that lay between them. The fighting was ferocious. The battle surged back and forth across the cornfield 15 times, costing each side nine generals. Within five hours, 12,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded, and the weary opponents stopped fighting for the day.

By midday, the struggle had shifted to a sunken country road between two farms. Two Confederate brigades stood their ground repeatedly as Union soldiers attacked and fell back. Finally, Union attackers assumed a position from which they could shoot down on the Confederate soldiers occupying the road. It was quickly filled with the dead and dying, sometimes two and three deep. The road earned a new name: Bloody Lane . The Confederates fell back, and McClellan again had the opportunity to cut Lee's army in two and ruin it. But McClellan did not follow through, and the battlefield fell silent.

This day sits in history as the bloodiest single day America has ever suffered. Over 22,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing &mdash more than all such casualties during the entire American Revolution. Lee lost a quarter of his army the survivors headed back to Virginia the next night.

The horror of Antietam proved to be one of the war's critical events. Lee and Davis did not get their victory. Neither Britain nor France was prepared to recognize the Confederacy. Five days after the battle, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On November 5, Lincoln, impatient with McClellan's hesitancy, relieved him of command, and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside .

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Battle Of Antietam: Midday

(Sunken Road aka Bloody Lane)

Under fire from sharpshooters and artillery, the first of French’s brigades crested a little rise less than 100 yards below them in a sunken farm road were three Confederate brigades of Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill’s division. A sheet of flame erupted from the sunken road and the crest of the ridge was covered with a blue blanket of dead or wounded Union soldiers. The brigade fell back another took its place, with the same result. Brigadier General Nathan Kimball was then ordered forward with his brigade of four regiments. These men, many of them veterans of the Shenandoah Valley and the Virginia Peninsula campaigns, did not fall back. Lying on the downside of the slope and rolling onto their sides to reload, they poured fire into the ranks of the Confederates below, who responded in kind. Blood turned the dirt in the road to mud, giving the sunken road the sobriquet Bloody Lane. Sumner declared that Kimball’s brigade had held "like the Rock of Gibraltar" after two other Union brigades had fled. The unit thereafter was known as the Gibraltar Brigade.

Union major general Israel B. Richardson arrived on the left of Kimball’s brigade. Leading the way was the New York Irish Brigade, led by Waterford, Ireland&ndashborn Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher. The Irishmen were engaged by Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright’s brigade of Maj. Gen. Richard H. "Fighting Dick" Anderson’s division, which had been sent to reinforce Hill. Wright and Meagher’s men fought at a distance of 30&ndash50 paces from each other. Anderson himself was wounded soon after arriving on the field and, except for Wright’s brigade, his 3,000&ndash4,000 men provided little help to Hill, whose men were finally pushed out by weight of numbers.

Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam was an American Civil War (1861–65) battle that happened along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland , on September 17, 1862. Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) had undertaken an invasion of the North. He hoped to gain the loyalty of people in Maryland and boost the strength of the Confederate States of America (or Southern) cause in the border state. He also hoped to lure federal troops away from Virginia to relieve the area temporarily from the ravages of war. Lee's advance north was a great threat to the Union and its capital, Washington, D.C. Union general George B. McClellan (1826–1885) learned of some of Lee's plans and pursued the Confederates.

On the night of September 13, Lee heard that McClellan had learned of his plans. Rather than retreating in the face of an army twice as big as his, Lee decided to face the federal troops, so he paused in Sharpsburg. McClellan advanced on the evening of September 16 and carefully moved his men into position.

The battle that ensued the following day marked the bloodiest single day of the war. McClellan launched a series of uncoordinated attacks on three sectors of Lee's forces. The Confederate forces were pushed back but avoided complete disaster with the arrival of troops from Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia ) under Confederate general A. P. Hill (1825–1865). Fighting only paused with the dark of night.

On the following day, Lee stood fast, but McClellan did not renew his attack. Lee recognized that a renewed attack was futile and so ordered a retreat to Virginia. His troops withdrew across the Potomac River on September 19. McClellan's forces were badly crippled as well, so he decided not to pursue Lee's forces.

The battle's dead, wounded, and missing totaled over twelve thousand for each side. The battle, however, is remembered for more than its casualties. Many historians regard it as the turning point of the war. The stunning victory by the Union provided U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865 served 1861–65) with military progress for which he had been waiting.

Lincoln followed the victory with an announcement of his Emancipation Proclamation . The proclamation declared freedom for slaves in the rebelling states. It changed the war from a political crusade to preserve the Union into a crusade to free the slaves and end slavery . The addition of a moral element to the North's cause impassioned supporters, made it a difficult war to abandon, and swung foreign support to the Union's side. All of this contributed to the eventual Union victory.

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Antietam, the deadliest one-day battle in American military history, showed that the Union could stand against the Confederate army in the Eastern theater. It also gave President Abraham Lincoln the confidence to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at a moment of strength rather than desperation.

How it ended

Inconclusive. General Robert E. Lee committed his entire force to the battle, while Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan sent in less than three quarters of his. With the full commitment of McClellan’s troops, which outnumbered the Confederates two to one, the battle might have had a more definitive outcome. Instead, McClellan’s half-hearted approach allowed Lee to hold ground by shifting forces from threat to threat.

In context

Lee invaded Maryland in September 1862 with a full agenda. He wanted to move the focus of fighting away from the South and into Federal territory. Victories there, could lead to the capture of the Federal capital in Washington, D.C. Confederate success could also influence impending Congressional elections in the North and persuade European nations to recognize the Confederate States of America. On the other side, President Abraham Lincoln was counting on McClellan to bring him the victory he needed to keep Republican control of the Congress and issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The first Confederate invasion of Union-held territory is not going as planned. After a Union victory at the Battle of South Mountain and a Confederate victory at the Battle of Harpers Ferry, Confederate general Robert E. Lee opts to make one last stand in the hopes of salvaging his Maryland Campaign.

With Federal forces closing in from the east, Lee selects strategic ground near Antietam Creek and orders his army to converge there. A mile east of the town of Sharpsburg, the creek meanders through the hilly but open countryside, good for long-range artillery and moving infantry. The water is deep, swift, and crossable only at three stone bridges, making it a natural defensible location. On September 15, Lee positions his men behind the creek and waits for McClellan to arrive.

On the afternoon of September 16, Union general George B. McClellan sets his army in motion, sending Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s First Corps across Antietam Creek to find Lee’s left flank. At dusk, Hooker bumps into Confederate general John Bell Hood’s division and the two forces skirmish until dark. The following morning, McClellan attacks.

September 17. The Battle of Antietam begins at dawn when Hooker’s Union corps mounts a powerful assault on Lee’s left flank. Repeated Union attacks and equally vicious Confederate counterattacks sweep back and forth across Miller’s cornfield and the West Woods. Hooker sees thousands of his Federals felled in the corn rows, where, “every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.” Despite the great Union numerical advantage, Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate forces hold their ground near the Dunker Church.

Meanwhile, towards the center of the battlefield, Union assaults against the Sunken Road pierce the Confederate center after a terrible struggle for this key defensive position. Unfortunately for the Union, this temporal advantage in the center is not followed up with further advances and eventually the Union defenders must abandon their position.

In the afternoon, the third and final major assault by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's Ninth Corps pushes over a bullet-strewn stone bridge at Antietam Creek. (Today it’s called Burnside Bridge.) Just as Burnside's forces begin to collapse the Confederate right, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s division charges into battle after a long march from Harpers Ferry, helping drive back the assault and saving the day for the Army of Northern Virginia.

There are more than 22,000 casualties at the Battle of Antietam. Doctors at the scene are overwhelmed. Badly needed supplies are brought in by nurse Clara Barton, known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” During the night, both armies tend their wounded and consolidate their lines. In spite of his diminished ranks, Lee continues to skirmish with McClellan on September 18, while removing his wounded south of the Potomac River. Late that evening and on September 19, after realizing that no further attacks are coming from McClellan, Lee withdraws from the battlefield and slips back across the Potomac into Virginia. McClellan sends Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter to mount a cautious pursuit, which is repulsed at the Battle of Shepherdstown.

While the Battle of Antietam is considered a tactical draw, President Lincoln claims a strategic victory. Lincoln has been waiting for a military success to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He takes his opportunity on September 22. The Proclamation, which vows to free the slaves of all states still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, will forever change the course of the war and the nation by marrying the Union cause with an attack on the institution of slavery. Hesitant to support a pro-slavery regime, England and France decline to form an alliance with the Confederate States of America.

After McClellan fails to pursue Lee on his retreat south, Lincoln loses faith in his general. Weeks later, he names Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Lincoln and McClellan had a tortured relationship. McClellan’s letters reveal his contempt for his commander-in-chief (whom he sometimes referred to as “the Gorilla”), and the historical record shows that as the war slogged on, Lincoln became increasingly frustrated with his general’s timidity and excuses. He believed McClellan spent too much of his command drilling troops and little of it pursuing Lee. Lincoln called the general’s “condition” a bad case of “the slows.”

Though well-liked by his men, McClellan could be vain and boastful. After he failed to attack Lee’s depleted troops as they fled Sharpsburg on September 18, he wrote to his wife, Ellen, that, ''those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art.'' Lincoln disagreed. He could not understand why his general was not on the tail of the Confederates, and he went to McClellan’s headquarters at Antietam to light a fire under him. In a letter to his wife, Mary, Lincoln joked, “We are about to be photographed. . . [if] we can sit still long enough. I feel Gen. M. should have no problem.”

Six weeks after Antietam, McClellan finally heeded his boss’s advice and led the Army of the Potomac into Virginia, but at a snail’s pace. Even before the nine-day trek, Lincoln had all but given up on the man who had once been christened “Young Napoleon” for his military promise. The president relieved McClellan of his duties on November 7 and appointed Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to be his replacement.

After losing his command, McClellan took up a new career—politics. In the 1864 election he was the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. His opponent, Abraham Lincoln, was reelected for another term.

Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton was a former teacher and patent clerk who became a nurse on the front lines during the Civil War. Despite having no prior experience and receiving no payment for her services, she bravely drove her cart of medical supplies into the fray at many battles, including Antietam. She saw the desperation of the wounded and dying and did what she could to aid and comfort them. Dr. James Dunn, a surgeon at the Battle of Antietam lauded her efforts:

The rattle of 150,000 muskets, and the fearful thunder of over 200 cannon, told us that the great battle of Antietam had commenced. I was in the hospital in the afternoon, for it was then only that the wounded began to come in. We had expended every bandage, tore up every sheet in the house, and everything we could find, when who should drive up but our old friend, Miss Barton, with a team loaded down with dressings of every kind, and everything we could ask for. . . .In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battle field.”

Later in the war, Lincoln authorized Barton to form the Office of Correspondence with Friends of Missing Men in the United States Army, an effort that eventually identified 22,000 missing Union soldiers. In 1881 Barton founded the American Red Cross.

Why Was the Battle of Antietam Important?

The Battle of Antietam was important because it stemmed the Confederate Army's advance into the northern territories, and provided an opportunity for Lincoln to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation. Though the battle was just the first to be fought in the northern colonies, Lincoln used the retreat of the southern forces at this battle as a sign the Union had the upper hand.

The Battle of Antietam included the bloodiest day of the Civil War nearly 23,000 soldiers were killed on Sept. 18, 1862, including over 10,000 Confederate troops and over 12,000 Union soldiers. The Union possessed superior forces, so despite its losses, it eventually drove the Confederate troops back. Although neither side landed a crushing blow in this battle, President Lincoln declared it a victory for the north.

Before the Battle of Antietam, the Confederate Army had reeled a string of crushing blows to the Union, pushing battles further north. As the two forces met near the Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, Md., the Union seemed in peril of succumbing to General Lee's forces. Lincoln needed a victory to justify delivering his rousing Emancipation Proclamation, which he hoped would improve sentiment for the Union cause. He used the weak success of the Battle of Antietam as a form of political cover to justify his speech.

Battle Of Antietam Pictures

The battlefield of Antietam was extensively photographed immediately after the battle took place, providing images that would shock the nation as to the brutal carnage of the young war.

This 1864 lithograph shows the charge of Ohio infantrymen against North Carolinian troops in the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland, which took place on the morning of September 14, 1862 and was a prelude to the Battle of Antietam. Image from the Library of Congress. Chromolithograph by Louis Prang and Company of The Battle of Antietam by Thure de Thulstrup. This painting depicts the charge of Iron Brigade near the Dunker Church on the morning of September 17, 1862. Image from the Library of Congress. An Edwin Forbes sketch of Burnside’s division carrying the bridge over the Antietam Creek against the Rebel position after a desperate conflict of four hours on Wednesday, September 17, 1862. Image from the Library of Congress. Alexander Gardner’s photograph of Burnside’s Bridge taken in September or October 1862 after the Battle of Antietam. Image from the Library of Congress. Alexander Gardner’s photograph of Smith’s barn, which was used as a hospital after the battle of Antietam just as nearly every available structure in the immediately vicinity was used as a hospital. The photograph was taken in September or October 1862 after the Battle of Antietam. Image from the Library of Congress. Alexander Gardner’s photograph of straw huts on Smith’s farm that were erected and used as a hospital – following the battle, a Hagerstown newspaper referred to the area around the battlefield as "one vast hospital." The photograph was taken in September or October 1862 after the Battle of Antietam. Image from the Library of Congress.

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